TRANSCRIPT: Your Parenting Long Game Episode 202 – When Children Act Self-Centered
Hello, it is Rachel, and welcome to episode 202 of Your Parenting Long Game.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently shifted the focus of this podcast to teaching skills to raise resilient, responsible, confident kids… but really focusing on strategies that are effective if you are raising children with big emotions.
I know that traditional strategies aren’t always effective with kids who feel things strongly because they seem to not care about consequences. They don’t want to use traditional coping strategies.
And it’s also true that raising big-emotion children can be tough for you and your entire family. I know it, it affects everyone. And I also know that if we aren’t aware of how to fully support kids and teens with big feelings, we may really negatively impact their self-esteem and their behavior and moods and attitudes can get worse.
But I have seen over and over, and I have helped so many families truly help big-emotion children and teens reach their full potential, both now and in the future — even if things seem really tough right now. That’s why I’m teaching Your Parenting Long Game!
So today I want to talk about another misconception of big-feeling children, which is that they are “self-centered” or “selfish” a lot of the time.
And man, do I understand where this perception comes from. Because children with big feelings can be very bossy — telling you exactly what they want, or what they want to do that day, or getting upset at their sibling because their sibling didn’t play the exact way that they wanted them to.
They can also be disrespectful — telling you how mean you are because you wouldn’t take them to see the movie that they wanted to see.
They can also make the whole family miserable by complaining and whining when you’re at an event where they don’t want to be. And in most cases, at least in that moment, they don’t seem to care that they are affecting anyone else.
So with all of this behavior, no wonder you feel that they’re self-centered and only focus on their own needs, or that they truly seem to think they should be able to get whatever they want. No wonder you feel that they’re being disrespectful unless things go exactly their way.
I want to talk about what’s really going on, but I also want to say that if you are raising a big-feeling child, I recently created a new free video series where I share the three keys to fostering resilience in big-emotion children — while still considering what you need and what the rest of your family needs so that you can worry less, have fewer negative interactions, and everyone can truly connect more. You can find that free video series at Rachel-Bailey.com/longgame. And I’ll also put the link to this in the show notes.
So let’s talk now though about what’s going on with the selfishness of children with big feelings. I’m going to explain a little bit about how the brain works, which will be new for some of you and a review for others, but hopefully a helpful review.
Let me start with the fact that there is a part of the brain that is flexible and thoughtful and really cares about other people’s feelings and is truly empathetic. That part of the brain is called the prefrontal cortex. And it would be great if we could function from that place of flexibility and thoughtfulness all of the time.
But for better or worse, when a human being senses a threat or feels uncomfortable — whenever they go into that place that I call Yuck, which is basically any type of discomfort — our brain senses Yuck as a threat. So the fight or flight response kicks in. One of the things our fight or flight response does is, it shuts down our access to parts of the brain or body that it feels are unnecessary for survival.
So it shuts down our access to the prefrontal cortex — to the flexible, thoughtful, empathetic part of our brain. We can’t access that part of the brain in the moment. And here’s what you need to know: People with big emotions are likely to go into fight or flight more easily.
As I mentioned in the last episode, which I will link to in the show notes, people with big emotions truly do feel things more strongly. They’re dealing with more discomfort more frequently, and they are more sensitive, very likely, to threats. That’s because their brain knows they have a hard time with discomfort. It’s constantly trying to find problems, so it can avoid that feeling of discomfort.
So a child may get really mad at you for putting their comforter on their bed wrong because they know if you put it on that way, it may mean that the comforter will come off in the middle of the night, and they’ll be cold and unhappy. They see these potential threats that could happen in the future all the time. They sense threats more easily and more strongly, which means their fight or flight response kicks in more easily. And remember when it kicks in, access to the selfless thoughtful part of the brain is shut down.
So what are they focusing on instead of being selfless and thoughtful? Again, because their brain knows that discomfort for them is so uncomfortable, their fight or flight response is focusing all of its energy on avoiding discomfort, not thinking about how others may feel.
It’s not because it’s selfish. It’s because it has a one-track mind in that moment, trying to avoid the discomfort that they fear that they may feel. They’re focusing on reducing and preventing discomfort.
By the way, we tend to be selfish and self-centered when we are in fight or flight as well. This is what happens to us when we are in a place of yuck or stress!
Imagine you are trying to get out of the house in the morning to get your kids to school, and they’re not cooperating. Maybe they’re not cooperating because they’re tired, or they’re annoyed at each other because one took the cereal that the other wanted. In that moment, we don’t care why they’re not cooperating. We don’t care what’s going on for them. Our agenda is to get them out of the house. And our agenda is our agenda. We don’t care about what they’re feeling or thinking or doing. It’s how our brains are wired. When we are in fight or flight, we have a hard time caring or even thinking about other people’s opinions or points of views.
So now that you may relate, I wanted to share what this might be actually like from the perspective of a child with big emotions to do this. I’ve created a letter from a hypothetical child who seems like she’s always being bossy and rarely thinking of her little brother’s feelings. And what makes it worse — at least from her parents’ perspective — is that she takes advantage of the fact that her little brother often gives in to her.
One day, after her parents were asking which movies each of the kids wanted to watch as a family, she kept dismissing her brother’s choices and insisting that they watch what she wanted. Her parents told her how sweet her brother was and how selfish she was acting. Here’s a letter she might have written to them to explain what was going on for her.
Dear Mom and Dad. I understand why you said I’m being selfish. I know I was insisting that we watch what I wanted, and I can see that it’s not very nice.
But when I’m in that moment, I want to watch my movies so badly. I’m so ready and prepared to watch them that I don’t know how to handle not being able to. It’s like I’ve been counting on it. And I imagine how bored and unhappy I’ll be when I’m watching Henry’s movie.
It’s like, my brain is saying, “I have to watch these movies, or all of these bad feelings will take over.” I care about how Henry feels, but I don’t know how to do anything different in that moment.
And when you call me selfish, even though I can see that deep down, it’s really hard for me to admit it, especially when everyone’s already mad at me. I’m afraid it’s going to make them even more mad at me.
At that point, I feel like I need to protect myself. And I know I dig in deeper, and I do regret it later. It’s so confusing, Mom and Dad. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, and why I can’t be nicer in the moment, either.
Kids are selfish when they’re trying to avoid discomfort and don’t know how to do something different. They don’t know a more mature way to handle it. Remember their brains aren’t mature, so their brains aren’t necessarily thinking in that way.
So as a parent of a big-emotion child who seems selfish, what can you do about this? I’m going to do some future segments on how to react to something like this, but that is not the first step.
I have a new program I created for parents of children with big emotions. And in the program, I explain that the first step in raising children with big emotions is to see them differently, to perceive them differently. Big-emotion kids sense how we view them, and their perception of how we’re viewing them greatly impacts how they feel and whether they’ll get out of yuck and act less selfish. Their behavior depends a lot on our perception.
Keep in mind, their selfish behavior is truly a sign that they are in yuck — that their fight or flight response has kicked in. And if we want them to stop being selfish, we actually have to view them differently, so that they sense from us that they are safe. For better or worse, they do feel your energy, and if they sense that you’re thinking they’re selfish, they won’t feel safe. They’ll dig their heels in deeper. You’ve probably experienced this.
Now, I’m not saying to condone their behavior. I’m saying just to recognize what is going on, to perceive — and I’ve talked about this before — that they are having a problem, not being a problem. They have a hard time when they imagine something is going to go one way, and it doesn’t. It’s incredibly uncomfortable for them. And they simply don’t have the skills to handle it maturely.
When you see that they are having a problem, not being a problem, your energy’s going to shift. They’re going to sense more quickly that they are safe, and they’re going to be able to change their behavior more effectively.
Now, if you want to take this one step further and really start to believe they are having a problem, not being a problem — what I would do is actually write it out in your own words. Why are they having a problem? Or even describe it out loud to someone else — what you heard in this podcast.Talk about what it’s like to be your child, and how they are really struggling in those moments.
If you want to, you can even try to write a letter like I did from the perspective of your child. Because when you teach it, when you really get into your child’s shoes, it’s easier to believe that they’re having a problem, not being a problem.
And when you believe it, your energy will impact not only this situation, but it will impact their self-esteem in a positive way. It will set the foundation for resilience. Because when you remember that your child’s selfishness is simply a symptom that their fight or flight response has kicked in, you can help them get out fight or flight rather than insisting they change their behavior, which will lead to them becoming more stubborn.
And when you remember that your child’s selfishness is simply a symptom that their fight or flight response has kicked in, you can help them recognize this for themselves and eventually work through their own triggers more maturely.
And when you remember that your child’s selfishness is simply a symptom that their fight or flight response is kicked in, you can help them feel better about themselves, rather than them wondering what is wrong with themselves and why they can’t just do what others ask them to do.
Now, I know that there are unique challenges. And as I mentioned earlier, I created a new free video that explains why what you’ve tried in the past with your big-feeling child may not be resulting in long lasting change, and what you can do to support your child, yourself, and the rest of your family. You can find that at rachelbailey.com/longgame.
And I would also ask if you enjoy this podcast to subscribe, rate, and review it. It’s really important to me to be able to help as many parents as possible, and that lies in your hands. The more you rate and subscribe and review, the more people hear this podcast and hear about it. So please take a moment to do that, and know that I read and appreciate every one of your comments and subscriptions.
I’ll be back again soon with more tips to improve your parenting long game, especially as you raise children with big feelings. I’ll see you soon.
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